During last year’s Oscars, I can remember myself frozen in my seat, awaiting the results for best picture. Between a texting battle with my mom — a hopeless romantic rooting for “La La Land” — I kept repeating to myself “Please don’t let it win.” When Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” actually won for Best Picture (minus the momentary switched-envelope screw up), I froze again, this time with a smile on my face, ecstatic for a win that I thought was merited but not expected.
I had a similar feeling of being stopped in time, unable to move, after I watched Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” I sat there still in my seat, incapable or processing what I had seen. I was in awe and enamored. Overwhelmed. And prior to nominations, it appeared like others felt the same way; Baker won for Best Director at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, which was a prelude to Barry Jenkins’s eventual Oscar triumph.
“The Florida Project” should have been this year’s “Moonlight.” The film traces Moonee, an independent and spunky 8-year-old resident of Orlando’s Magic Castle, a cluster of lilac project homes, as she goes on adventures and learns that life isn’t as magical as she thought it was. Both films are indeed quite similar — they tell stories that are rarely told. They both expose a pocket of hidden America, specifically Fla., that has escaped popular American consciousness — whether it be the poverty on the outskirts of Disney World, or the struggle of being Black and gay in an underprivileged neighborhood. They both confront ugly themes beautifully, with masterful cinematography that is unique and stands out as their own kind of character. Both directors find ways to use color and nature and give them symbolism while still sticking to their urban, poverty-stricken and lets not forget, humid, roots. Both let the films speak for themselves without excessive plot or dialogue. They treat issues of hardship, addiction, abuse and self discovery, but they treat them tenderly. Carefully.
Similarly, some would say that this year’s nominations for Best Picture have opened up the diversity bracket, with “Lady Bird” showing a nuanced and imperfect mother-daughter relationship and “Call Me By Your Name” delivering a homosexual love story with sensuality and purpose. It therefore feels a little bit off that “The Florida Project” was rendered absent in this category. Actually, it was rendered absent in most categories except Best Actor for Willem Dafoe (“Justice League”), whose nomination is well-deserved. But that leaves “The Florida Project” with a total of one nomination, the same amount of nominations as “Boss Baby.”
To say that Hollywood isn’t changing wouldn’t be recognizing the obvious. But it is definitely not changing enough. It almost feels like things got suddenly revisionist after “Moonlight”’s win. But it’s clear that Hollywood is still cold to newcomers. “The Florida Project”’s cinematography is splendid. Baker himself has proven to be an uncommon, unorthodox filmmaker that makes us see things we don’t ever think about, without exploiting them or chastising them — we just observe. Brooklynn Prince (“Robo-Dog: Airborne”) exhibits maybe one of the best child performances in film history. And yet, no nominations in these categories. These stories will undoubtedly continue to be told by filmmakers who favor passion over recognition, while Hollywood still prefers the sentimental fantasy of “Darkest Hour” and “The Post.” But with A24’s rapid ascent over the past years, hopefully independent films like “The Florida Project” will gain the recognition they deserve.